Throughout his life, Kazuto Sugiyama had always believed he should be prepared for anything. But before the situation he was facing, he felt hopeless. The cold from the floor was seeping through his pants while his arms embraced his flexed legs. It looked to him as though he had been sitting there forever when, in reality, an hour had passed since it all started. Trying to ease the uncertainty growing at the back of his thoughts, Kazuto scanned the mass of people around him. Fear seemed to stretch out a vast hand among the students, some burying their heads in their arms while others sat erect with dismay. A few of his classmates were also weeping silently, including Issei Uchida. Tears still trickled down his hurt cheeks while some girls tried to comfort him in vain.
And still, what surprised Kazuto the most, was the sudden realization there was something wrong in his life. After all, the reasons behind his reluctance to enjoy it had received additional fuel to keep consuming his mind. Yet all he felt in its place was a burning urge to take action rising inside of him. He was struggling with this new thought, sensing there was no place for his petty internal dilemmas anymore and letting himself ride on this powerful emotion. What worried him the most, however, was that there was nothing he could do before the enormous power the terrorists arrayed against him.
In the end, the only thing Kazuto knew for sure was how a certain student would deal with all this.
“I wish I had that console now,” Raisuke said, his priorities as scrambled as usual.
Nozomi found little amusement in his mindset. “Here we are, worrying about our lives, and yet you only keep thinking about your stupid videogames.”
Raisuke ignored her. “Damn field trip. I just wanna go home!”
“You and everyone else in this room,” Kazuto interjected. “Guess things hardly go the way you want.”
Nozomi turned to him. “What do you think is going on outside?”
“Cops and reporters everywhere, perhaps my brother making his way through them with his cast like a madman.” Yoshiro. Kazuto had seldom thought of him since it had all begun. And still, there was little doubt in his mind he would be out there regardless of his limited possibilities. Such was his determination, and no injury would stop him.
Who seemed to have lost that quality, however, was Nozomi. His words had done nothing to ease her, and Kazuto saw her face had remained expressionless since her anxiety incident. It was an odd sighting for such a cheering and hopeful person.
Even Mayuri noticed this. “You feeling better?” she asked, sitting beside her.
“Yeah. But I’d rather avoid talking about it, you know?” Nozomi replied bluntly while avoiding her gaze.
Kazuto shifted his eyes to her and saw her body scuffling to come up with an adequate posture. Almost without realizing it, he gave his friend’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. Even if his pulse was trembling a bit, his action had achieved his desired effect, for Nozomi placed her hand over his, seemly comforted by his warmth.
And it was then that he became present.
Everyone’s nerves raised when one of the terrorists resumed his routine patrol outside the room. The blurred shadow loomed over the students as if the Grim Reaper were about to collect their souls. Just the bare sight of him made them shiver. “I wish he’d stop doing that,” Raisuke commented, anxious. Nozomi didn’t object to his thinking this time.
When the man stopped in his tracks, everyone in the room tensed. He lowered his head while pressing something to his ear until he went for the door. A couple more terrorists had joined him in the meantime, a sense of urgency in their steps.
The leading terrorist addressed the hostages as soon as he walked in. “Let’s see. We know one of you gave a flash drive to an employee here. Would the student please step forward?”
The sweat started on Kazuto’s backbone, and he felt his entrails turn into ice. For long seconds, the only sound was everyone’s heavy breathing, and the boy feared the pounding in his chest was loud enough for them to hear. He glanced at his classmates, exchanging silent looks as though expecting the designated person to come forward. But he was too shocked to do anything, his earlier courage sinking of its own accord.
Getting impatient, the masked man let out a sigh. “Very well. So that’s how things are going to be...” He glared at the huddled mass of frightened hostages.
What happened next made the room erupt.
The terrorist walked beside Nozomi—and reached down to grab Mayuri by the arm, yanking her to her feet like a rag doll. The teacher stood up to face the man once more. Yet this time, the rifle fixing on her prevented her from doing anything. She cried in terror as he fired a long burst up into the ceiling, the students either clasping their ears or clinging to each other at the frightful sound.
“You wanna play games, huh?” the terrorist barked in anger, and only then did Kazuto register the voice belonged to the man who had threatened Nozomi before. “Then, how about this? You have ten seconds to identify yourself, or she dies.” Terrified glances multiplied among the students as he began his countdown. “Ten… nine… eight...”
Kazuto saw Nozomi beside him, jumping to her friend’s aid. But the teacher and the female guide stepped in to restrain her, holding her by the waist. “Please, we don’t know what you’re talking about,” she yelled desperately. “Just leave her alone!”
“It’ll be on your conscience!” the terrorist went on as if she hadn’t spoken. “Six… five… four...” Nozomi was crying now, and Kazuto also witnessed some students turning their heads to spare themselves the coming horror. While the boy couldn’t stand seeing the girl perish before him, an old feeling coiled around his heart, making him hesitate.
It was fear.
The armed man, reaching the end of his ultimatum, shoved the barrel of his gun into Mayuri’s temple, tightening his finger on the trigger. Tears flooded from her eyes as she forced them shut, resigning herself to the inevitability of her situation.
“Three… two… one...”
“It was me! I did it!” Kazuto jumped at the cocking sound of the rifle.
A moment of silence followed as all eyes in the room fell upon the boy rising to his feet and taking a step forward. The terrorist, for his part, fixed his own on Kazuto with disdain. “Of course, it had to be you, ‘hero’,” he spat as he released the grip on Mayuri. Yet he did so with such rudeness the girl tripped and almost collapsed on the ground. Thankfully, she kept her footing, running into Nozomi’s arms. She held on to her friend like grim death while sparing a glance over her shoulder at Kazuto. He saw newly found joy in her eyes along with confusion and surprise.
The sighting faded when the terrorist clutched his arm and drove him out of the conference room. A fresh wave of fear spreading all over his body followed it.
For Kazuto felt as though he was stepping into an early grave he was digging on his own.
As soon as he began descending the stairs that led him to the sixth floor, Hayato had the feeling something was wrong. He was leaning against one of the stairwell’s double doors, dressed head to toe in the terrorists’ black tactical uniform, his face covered by the crimson devilish mask. Easing the south door open a little, he came across a hallway perpendicular to the elevators. Three figures emerged from around the corner before the maze of workstations. Hayato identified two of them as Amaterasu operatives, one grabbing Kazuto Sugiyama by the arm. Cursing inwardly, he watched the young student being forced by his captor inside a bathroom next to the stairs. The second terrorist stood guard outside, clutching his rifle in a resting position on the sling.
“Great,” Hayato muttered, then took a deep breath, preparing himself for what was coming. He adjusted his mask properly, then stepped out into the hallway.
Measuring his steps, he approached the man standing guard outside the door, trying to look professional, his finger off his M4 carbine’s trigger but keeping the pistol grip in check. His heart leaped to his throat as the man removed his mask, his intentions uncertain. Yet Hayato relaxed as he saw him fishing for something among his pouches, letting go of his weapon to leave it in a hang position. It turned out he had produced a cigarette, which he put to his mouth and tried to light twice without success.
Recalling he had a lighter of his own in his pockets, Hayato patted them until he found the right bundle. He offered it to him with a friendly approach. “Thanks,” the terrorist said, inhaling once as he glanced over to see the colleague who had done him a favor with curiosity. “Aren’t you tired of wearing that thing? You can take it off outside when you pass by hostages or windows.”
Keeping his calm, he shrugged, dismissing his remark. “Habit, I guess. Helps me stay focused.”
The terrorist studied him in a sort of disinterested silence for a few moments until the voices inside the bathroom caught his attention. “Alright, you little brat. Time to spit your guts out,” said a raspy voice Hayato could only assume belonged to the armed thug. “What the hell were you doing with that thing?”
Sugiyama-kun replied right away. “Kotori-san only gave it to me because she needed someone she trusted to have it. I know nothing, I swear!”
Seeing the man’s mouth twisting in disgust at the situation, he dared to ask, “Hey, wanna switch places? I’ve already dealt with one of those Yoshimura twins. Unless, of course, you want to keep on playing babysitter.”
The terrorist gave him a long look, considering his words. “Sure. Suit yourself. But you get to report it on the radio.”
The minor victory brought a smirk to his masked face as the man strolled away from the door, leaving a trail of cigarette smoke behind him. Hayato took its place by the door, his mind considering what should be his next step.
In the meantime, the argument inside the bathroom began to heat up. “I already told you all I know!” Kazuto yelled at the other man. “Holding a gun to my head isn’t going to change that. That’s no way to get anything!”
Tensing, he caught a whisper of the terrorist chuckling. “But I got you to confess. That’s how things work with you people. No one listens to what we have to say unless we take drastic actions.”
Hayato clenched his teeth, unable to ease the tension knotting in his chest. Somewhere inside him, his soldier instincts told him it was unwise to jump into action now, that he should wait for a better moment and better assess the situation before exposing himself. But in the end, fearing for the well-being of the young man, Hayato pushed the door open. He slipped in while avoiding to draw too much from those inside, and found in no time his assessment had been accurate. Before him, Sugiyama-kun was throwing up his hands as the armed bastard waved his rifle at him.
“I can handle the kid on my own, mate,” the thug said to Hayato, looking at him over his shoulder while avoiding losing sight of Kazuto. It seemed he had mistaken him for the colleague standing guard at the door before. Indeed, his attention went back to the student almost immediately. Carefully removing his glasses, he revealed his bright blue eyes. Sugiyama-kun gasped in wide-eyed shock, recognizing him only by the upper part of his face. Hayato moved his index finger to his lips, lest the boy’s reaction would expose him before the terrorist. Yet he kept staring at him for some reason, and he feared the armed man would realize something was wrong at any moment.
He dared not to wait any longer. No sooner than he was onto him that Hayato jammed his forearm across the other man’s throat, sliding his other hand behind his head. The terrorist dropped his weapon as he struggled to free himself, stomping on the floor in despair. Hayato kept up the pressure, knowing his foe would go slack and pass out in a few more seconds. What he failed to realize, however, was that the man was fishing something out of his equipment.
Only when the stab of pain spread through his left leg did Hayato register it had been a knife.
The young man suppressed a scream between his teeth, aware enough to prevent anyone outside from hearing it. But he had loosened the grip on his foe. Sure enought, he had broke free from his grasp, putting some distance between them. As Hayato lowered to the floor, leaning on his right knee and seeking to remove the sharp razor buried in his flesh, he glimpsed the terrorist taking off his mask to catch his breath. But he would not submit. Somehow, the man recovered almost immediately and was bearing down on him before Hayato could pull out the knife. He balanced on his good leg, not trusting his odds of resisting the onslaught.
A loud crash echoed across the bathroom. Suddenly, the terrorist’s eyes rolled to the top of his head as his legs gave way under him. When his body collapsed onto the floor, Hayato noticed Kazuto was standing next to him, holding a tissue dispenser with both hands while breathing hard. The kid, he assumed, ought to have ripped it off some wall, hitting the back of the terrorist’s skull with all its weight. But adrenaline soon gave way to shock as he let go of the object. He stood there, paralyzed, his eyes darting back and forth between Hayato and the downed terrorist, not knowing what to do.
And still, the young man rushed to hold on to his unsteady body when he nearly lost his balance amid his pain. He motioned for Sugiyama-kun to carry him to a bath stall. The kid kicked the door open and helped him sit on the toilet as Hayato removed the remaining part of his mask. With a stifled groan, he yanked out the blade from his leg with one hand while the other produced a small case from a pouch over his abdomen, which he handled to his classmate. From it, Kazuto pulled out a saline solution. He immediately used to clean the wound, then started patching it with bandages and tape he also obtained from the med kit.
Hayato watched as the kid worked on healing his right leg, noticing his hands were steady and moving with purpose. “You’ve done this before?” he ventured to ask with a grunt. Kazuto nodded at him, his eyes fixed on his arms while dealing with the tape and scissors.
A curious thought then flickered across Hayato’s mind as he wondered if Kazuto was, in fact, ready. It occurred to him that the boy who used to look downhearted in class was giving way to a new, more resolute person before this life-or-death situation. “When you’re done, I’m going to ask you to come with me, Sugiyama-kun,” Hayato said out of the blue with all seriousness. “I can get you out of here.”
Kazuto froze at his words. He stopped working on the bandage, looking up at him. “Get me out? And go where?” he asked in a skeptical tone. Hayato thought he saw the questions exploding in his mind as his eyes wavered. “What the hell is all this? And how are you and your sister involved in it?”
“Look, right now, we don’t have much time. You’ll have to trust me—” Hayato uttered a little yelp as pain flared up his leg as if he had been stabbed again. He bore angry eyes at Kazuto, who had tightened the bandage hard to force his reaction and was looking back at him with a piercing gaze that demanded answers. Hayato scrunched up his face between misery and laughter at his defiant attitude. “Fine, I’ll give you the quick version,” he muttered with a feeble voice, then regained his usual tone. “We’re Sentinel operatives. The school thing is just part of our cover. We were assigned to help Kotori retrieve the files from the stick you gave her. But then everything went to hell... Now, it won’t be long until they find out some of their mates are missing, and things get worse. I’m giving you a chance to save your friends. Will you take it?”
Hayato let the question hang as he stood up with some effort. Avoiding leaning on his injured leg, he took a few steps around the bathroom to check his condition. He assessed he was well enough to proceed, although he was in no shape for a confrontation. He hoped he wouldn’t have to face any more of them.
Turning toward Kazuto, Hayato saw the boy rubbing his head in confusion. “B-But what about my friends?” he asked as his mind raced at the full extent of the situation. “And Kotori-san? What’s going to happen to them?” A shadow of doubt crossed his gaze. “What can I really do for them?” he said, more to himself than to Hayato, with a voice that lacked confidence.
“We’re working to get them out of here as soon as possible,” he tried to reassure him while ignoring his last question. “But first, let me get you out of here, then I’ll give you all the answers you need, okay?”
Kazuto was far from convinced, of that Hayato was sure, yet his head began nodding in approval. “Okay,” the kid replied in a low voice. And that was all he needed from him at the moment.